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A Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's (spiegel.de)
223 points by respinal 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 87 comments



This is awesome. I've always been a super 'smeller' and seem to be able to taste/smell very minute concentrations of bad stuff well before others. Being careful what I say, I also work in EMS and have been able to identify 'sick' patients, even just on walking in the room, often their smell of their 'sickness' gives them away - even when they're not showing a lot of outward signs.

Hopefully someday we'll have some kind of tricorder device that can identify disease processes by gas/scents/smells.


> Hopefully someday we'll have some kind of tricorder device that can identify disease processes by gas/scents/smells.

It can hasten the process of identifying these chemicals if people with such a sense of smell present themselves to researchers. To me that's the most important takeaway of this story. Unfortunately, most articles reporting on the story bury the lede as the fact that people can smell disease draws more attention than what they're smelling, and that researchers either didn't seriously consider there might be such a chemical indicator or didn't know where to start until they had access to a super smeller.

This sort of diagnostic approach isn't new. Once upon a time doctors would taste urine samples! It just fell out of favor because machine and chemical tests are more reliable and consistent. But if you're not drinking other people's pee on a regular basis, or running a large scale, shot gun experiment (like a super smeller spending decades learning scents), initial discovery of such markers can become more difficult.


> Once upon a time doctors would taste urine samples!

"Ayurvedic physicians (5th/6th century BCE) first noted the sweet taste of diabetic urine, and called the condition madhumeha ("honey urine")." - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_diabetes

A more palatable way to diagnose diabetes is to check if your urine attracts ants and flies.


Or turn your diabetic urine into Single-Malt Whisky because there's sugar and you can filter such things. For artistic reasons.

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/pissky


There are countless recitations of the common practice of tasting for diabetes, but I can't find any example of other urine taste tests despite many sources stating it was used for other diseases and that urology wheels[1] encoded tastes and smells in addition to appearances. Have you found any?

The closest I could find was mention of smelling urine to determine pregnancy, which apparently was/is rather reliable. The next best was mention of the surgeon John Hunter discussing the taste of semen, though the author "assumes... [Hunter] was tasting his own". (I wouldn't assume that considering his interests and research. Google Books texts of Hunter's publications contained page after page of discussion about the genital fluids of male cadavers, but after his brief mention of the taste of semen from a live donor he never quite goes where you're fearfully hoping! I didn't get there in my skimming--so much preamble for stuff everybody learns in Zoology and Physiology 101--but I presume he ended up reporting many important discoveries about male reproductive tissues and processes.)

I wish Google Books was as awesome today as it was 10 years ago. They expose only a tiny fraction of the material they once provided, even for pre-20th century material that couldn't possibly be under copyright. :(

[1] I wonder if they were inspiration, perhaps indirectly, for the wine aroma wheel created by the chemist Ann Noble at UC Davis.


It’s funny that you cite only the ayurvedic name, since the scientific name, diabetes mellitus, has the exact same etymology: “mellite” is Latin and translates to “sweetened [with honey]”, and the disease was thus named in 1675 because of the patients’ urine’s sweet taste. That said, it’s definitely interesting that this isn’t a relatively recent discovery and was already known two thousand years before the modern naming.


I can identify when a woman is ovulating by the smell of something being exhaled on the breathe and excreted through the skin.

Only ever happens with close female friends, but I’ve identified the smell from regular standing conversation distance away with friends I haven’t seen for weeks and don’t otherwise know their cycle.


Oh, I have this "condition" or something similar, too. Not even with close friends but with strangers I pass in the supermarket. It doesn't happen often but it's very significant.

I think I somewhere read, but unrelated to ovulating, that this was made by nature to find suitable partners. Probably that natural smell is intensified by ovulating.

edit: And to be honest: I never told anyone before that I sometimes sense this different smell and I'm not sure I should. Women could probably feel uncomfortable and think their smell is somehow "bad" when others can sense it. Not sure.


You’re likely perceiving female pheromones. There have been studies that men can reliably detect fertile phases from sniffing worn shirts alone. I‘ve tried diving a bit into this topic after noticing something fruity (a good smell) in the middle of my cycle, which somehow intensified when being around my so. Interestingly it disappeared in the years I’ve been on hormonal contraception (stopped now due to a couple of more severe side effects, luckily I haven’t been on them for long).

Asking the women whether your perception is true would likely have led nowhere as most women are not aware of their fertile phases.

Search keyword seems to be ‚copulins‘, but the area appears a bit underexplored. Lots of companies trying to sell snake oil. Lots of urban legends about mind control. Some girls do try using their natural perfume to their advantage though.

The thing about compatibility you mention is more related to the immune system I think, and mutual.


Pheromones is the word, thanks for the reminder.

I have a tendency to associate with alternative types who are aware of their cycle and are happy to talk about it, and have confirmed my observation by asking on multiple occasions.


Sorry, I'm off to bed due to the timezone I live in. Will try to write a better response tomorrow. Thanks.


That seems a huge evolutive advantage in reproduction, I'm surprised this trait isn't more common.


I suspect it is common, probably even normal.

Our culture and schooling doesn't encourage the development of the subtle senses.


What is a conscious process for some can be a completely unconscious process for others.


Smell is a important part of interpersonal relationships.

It's another example of what's lost working virtually.

It's not an advantage knowing why the person smells the way they do. Just what to do.

https://businessinsider.com/women-more-attractive-during-ovu...

There are very strong relationships between couples and known smell genetics. (I think being different is good?)

It's an interesting question how deodorant has changed our genes.


It's like that famous scene in "Silence of the Lambs" (or the wonderful musical number in "Silence! The Musical")


Not sure what you're talking about here, been ages since I watched the film. You might have inspired me to read the books, thanks :)


> friends I haven’t seen for weeks and don’t otherwise know their cycle.

The cherry on top of your out-of-this-world comment. Do you know and/or keep track of some of your friends' cycles ?


Your female friends don’t complain to you when they’re on their periods? That seems like part of the line between “friend” and “just an acquaintance”, to me.


Haha, sure, if I live with them, it helps to know :)


When I was a teenager I had a "super smell" sense which seems pretty ordinary compared to what others here are saying: I could detect whether a used glass of drink was mine by smelling the saliva in the glass (in fact I found it shocking that my friends couldn't). My friends mocked me, I suppressed my ability, and now I'm not sure if I can't smell it anymore or I simply don't care.


Related, I simply cannot stand the smell of eggs on dishes even after a couple of runs through a dishwasher.

Love eggs for breakfast, though, so it's a tough life.


Perhaps, when you were a teenager, your friends/relatives just had particularly awful-smelling saliva.


I'd occasionally notice taking the wrong used glass by the smell and even know who used it if it was someone close. Lots of pheromones and stuff, nothing unusual about it. I wouldn't say it's a bad smell, I just don't like using cups after my relatives, close friends, or well, other people. Drinking after single attractive ladies being mostly non-weird.

The sense does depend heavily on state of mind, and body, so sometimes I'd only notice when already drinking. Works better on people I know well.


The idea that our skin is permeable to smells seems really weird, but there have been a number of documented cases where pets seem to detect similar sicknesses in their owners.

Part of it is I don't think we realize how weird and sensitive smell is even for us. Imagine the world through the nose of a dog or bear.


For Parkinson's the odor comes from chemicals expressed by sebaceous glands.

I didn't know this until reading your comment. It does seem weird that the skin is so permeable, so I looked it up. At least in this case, it doesn't seem to have anything to do with permeable skin.

EDIT: It's mentioned in passing in the linked article: "For one experiment in Manchester, sebum samples were taken from the upper backs of test participants." Other sources are more clear about the relationship to sebaceous glands.


Well pointed, thank you. I did some looking and it seems the 'dog sniffing ovarian cancer through the belly' hasn't been reproduced in any controlled study yet (that i could find). Could just be via breath/skin secretions/etc.


Dogs can smell so tiny concentrations I'd be surprised to find out they could not smell ovarian cancer. Instead, the trick I imagine is to train them to care and alert a handler.


Pigeons have been trained in pathology imaging for breast cancer

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal...


> ... The birds proved to have a remarkable ability to distinguish benign from malignant human breast histopathology after training with differential food reinforcement; even more importantly, the pigeons were able to generalize what they had learned when confronted with novel image sets. ...

> ... However, when given a different (and for humans quite difficult) task—namely, classification of suspicious mammographic densities (masses)—the pigeons proved to be capable only of image memorization and were unable to successfully generalize when shown novel examples. ...


Have a look in to how the skin can pick up the slack from stressed or under performing kidneys.


Well given that we breath some through the skin it not being permeable to smells would be weirder really.


My current guest is a super smeller. It's mildly annoying. She finds the scent of everything to be too strong, from a pizza box in the trash to the soap in the bathroom to the dirty laundry in the closet. She'll literally wake up in the middle of the night and ask if someone ate pizza because the smell is overwhelming her nose.


Spider Robinson's novel "Telempath" [1] concerns a world where someone released a virus that made everyone a super smeller, increasing human sense of smell hundreds of times.

So many people were not able to tolerate the smells of our civilization that the result was widespread rioting and mass insanity, pretty much bringing down civilization.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telempath


I am a "super" smeller and I hate it. Particularly annoying at the gym as I seems to be only one who can tell who didn't shower or is using deo. Those who smell really bad I can smell even if they already left. Very strong smells also tend to linger for the rest of the day even if the source is long gone.

How do you tell someone they should use more deodorant without upsetting them?


If you're the only person that's bothered by those persons' odor, it might be more practical (in social terms) to deal with it from your side.

Is there anything you can do to reduce your sensitivity to bad odors when at the gym? (Serious question. Not a problem I've looked into before.)


> Is there anything you can do to reduce your sensitivity to bad odors when at the gym?

Surgeons use peppermint concentrate.


Perhaps you relate a story about another situation to reveal your super smelling powers, they might taken it upon themselves to double up on deo.


I hope it's not too personal of a question, but does this trait sometimes overwhelm you? If so, how do you cope?


My mother, my brother and I all have this smell ability to some degree. I remember when I was a child, my mother could diagnose me with strep by smell. (She would also take me to the doctor.)

None of us in the family can tolerate things like fresh paint, dry cleaner establishments, nail polish, and other chemical smells. My mother tended to avoid the "better living through chemistry" cleaning products popular in the 70's and 80's because they bothered her a lot. I, unfortunately, have developed extreme chemical sensitivity, so I'm on the extreme end of this.

FWIW, nobody on this side of my family has ever gotten cancer (knock on wood). I often wonder if our profound awareness of toxins is also protective, in that we completely avoid things that others would be comfortable working with on a daily basis.


I've been able to smell infections (which makes sense, the immune response of an infection would mis with your whole microbiome). That's pretty different from smelling Parkinson's.


Exactly. Parkinson's is a mechanical issue and doesn't affect the microbiome -- they proved that with science.


That's diametrically opposite to the latest research coming out [1].

There seems to be a "gut-brain axis" at work, to the point where some are starting to think the gut is the starting point.

We're seeing an increasing number of disorders -- psoriasis [2], lupus, schizophrenia, among others -- where there's an underlying connection to the gut microbiome and to inflammation in general caused by "pathobionts" [3].

[1] https://parkinsonsnewstoday.com/2019/02/12/understanding-gut...

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738081X1...

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3426444/


I can smell dengue. I learned with myself first :)


I worked in Biotech for a while and spent years working with various cell lines i.e cancer. Cancer has a distinct smell. I was out shopping one day and the scent hit me, I turned around and next to me was an elderly man in a wheelchair. I am definitely a super smeller. After developing chronic migraines I'm now very sensitive to scent, every product I use has to be unscented and I have to avoid crowded areas due to the risk of setting a migraine off. It's the super power I wish I didn't have.


Is it the cancer or the treatment that you're smelling?


It smelled like the cell culture lab. I wouldn't know what the treatment smelled like but it's possible the treatment might have smelled like DMEM.


This is my thought as well. A specific medication that is secreted when sweating, or an odour picked up during a treatment process.


Radiation therapy leaves a distinct oder I can detect.


How would you describe the smell?


Similar to "old person smell" but more distinct.


How do you know it was an old person with cancer rather than just an old person who smelled like an old person?


A family member died of brain cancer. He smelled distinctly unsettling, even frightening.

I don’t know if it was the cancer I smelled or messed up chemistry due to the cancer. But the smell made me feel deep dread.


I’m curious - as you are in research - can you give a few more details? How can it have a distinct smell? That would mean patients or cells are exposing some material, right?


The cells are kept warm which might have carried the scent better. I'm not sure exactly what the cells are expressing that caused the smell.


excuse me, which brands are you using? (face wash/ shower/shampoo) cuz I am a sensitive smeller too, I haven't found good products so far.


I use Whole Foods 365 fragrance free body wash, shampoo and conditioner. For a moisturizer I use Alba very emollient original unscented, for face I use Body Merry, night cream along with Cosmetica pure hyaluronic acid serum and the blue unscented type of chapstick. For a leave in conditioner I use my kids Little Twig unscented conditioner. They also sometimes use the Equate kids 3 in 1 unscented body wash/shampoo/conditioner. For deodorant I use a small bit of Secret unscented, it has a masking fragrance which is noticeable to me but the least offensive unscented deodorant I've found, and I've tried a lot of products. I also like the Alba leave in conditioner and styling cream which are unscented but possibly discontinued. I hope this helps!


The green label Dove bar for general shower soap: https://www.amazon.com/Dove-Beauty-Bar-Sensitive-Skin/dp/B00... Cerevie for facewash: https://www.amazon.com/CeraVe-Hydrating-Facial-Cleanser-Frag... The creamy Burt's Bees Baby Shampoo Fragrance Free https://www.burtsbees.com/product/burts-bees-baby-shampoo-an...


Not sure which country you are in but my girlfriend has problems so I've checked the options in the UK a fair bit. There a quite a few products labelled 'sensitive' and unperfumed in the shops here eg. shampoo, washing liquid and so on which are mostly good. Some other products I've failed on eg. bio washing liquid, toilet cleaner.


I have sensitive skin and I stopped using shampoo last winter. I was worried about greasiness but it was no trouble at all.


I use baby shampoo for everything. It's face wash, body wash, shampoo, shaving gel, etc, and has no perfumes.


thanks guys


Different article, same title, 2015: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10434974

Related from earlier this year: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19528250


This is incredible.

The thought of her ability potentially leading to advances in disease diagnosis is a humbling reminder of how complex the human body really is. And that there is still more to know.


My favorite thing about articles about super smellers/tasters/whatever is how whenever they show up, everyone in the comments also has this rare ability.


I can smell selection bias.


There’s an organisation that trains rats to detect tuberculosis by smell. Sounds like this could be another candidate.

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/dec/26/g...

They also train them to find land mines.

https://www.apopo.org/en


Oh and it turns out this lady has actually met the Apopo rats. :)

https://www.apopo.org/en/latest/2018/04/The-woman-who-smells...


I see some comments talking about human pheromones and I just wanted to point out that there really isn’t any strong evidence (yet) that human pheromones exist.

“It is emphasized that no bioassay-guided study has led to the isolation of true human pheromones, a step that will elucidate specific functions to human chemical signals.” [1]

[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15470677


Does it have to "elucidate specific functions" to be a pheromone?

Or is it sufficient to be a "subconscious smell," signaling or otherwise?


When I first heard about this years ago, I knew exactly what the scent was, because I'd noticed it on my grandfather years before. I don't think I have a particularly great sense of smell - in fact, from a childhood of secondhand smoke and oddly narrow sinus passages / allergies, I've always felt like my nose didn't really work. But, the smell of people with Parkinson's is very distinct and I've noticed it on people since. Likewise, the last time I was at my grandmother's house, I noticed very distinctly that the smell was no longer there as it was one of the few times I'd been back at her house since grandpa passed away. Parkinsons / Lewy body / Althzeimers are all fascinating yet horrifying for what they do to people and I'm thankful there are people researching and seeking remedies.


I know that I can smell when I am coming down with a cold or similiar - from inside my nose and others. I would call it a sour curdling, "sick" smell. I have noticed it in some other people as well.


Theres an interesting article about the technology behind the story by the company worked with MIB on this. https://www.anatune.co.uk/resources/blog/the-smell-of-parkin...


The article itself is very well written - intimate and sensuous.


Makes me think of the book "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer"


Fascinating. Cool that they try to teach a device to smell, but similarly interesting would be trying to find the origin of her smelling ability - is it genetic?


Perhaps we could teach dogs to smell it like we teach them to sniff drugs & explosives?


At the moment it isn't terribly important, there's no known intervention that stops the onset of symptoms and there's no treatment that does anything other than address the symptoms.

It's useful to identify it early, but for the most part the early symptoms are mild.


I suspect the only way to develop a method that stops the onset of symptoms is to detect the symptoms really early and figure out what to do from there.

Otherwise there is no way to distinguish between someone who never got cancer and someone who did but had the progression stop before it became a problem.


Yes, that's why I said it would be useful.


We already teach them to sniff USB sticks


Can you elaborate? I can't tell if your post is a joke.


It is real - ironically realer than drug sniffing dogs because they can't use memory sniffing dogs until after they have probable cause since there is no law against high density storage. So they aren't (mis)trained as four legged probable cause generators who respond more to police signaling than actual location.


German police trained 5 dogs to detect electronics and media, and used them on a child molester's home as well as in jails to search for contraband: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/panorama/nrw-spuerhunde-polizei-...


Very true. As mentioned used a lot for pedophile cases. Case in point, Jared Fogel of Subway fame:

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/porn-sniffing-dog-helpe...


This site is yelling at me in German about my Adblocker, it's hilarous.

https://imgur.com/EFKp8Wa


It's nice that you attach a screenshot, but I got the same message, and I don't even have an ad-blocker, just the default tracking protection in Firefox. (I don't even care about tracking itself, just the fact that most of it slows down my computer significantly for entirely useless JavaScript computations and slowdowns, so, it's got to go.)




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